Gene Wilder appeared in just a little over 20 films, spanning a little under 25 years. His life in public was relatively short for such a giant in his field. There’s no doubt that the role – out of all of his famous roles – that he will be most remembered for is Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. (Good arguments can be made, but one look at Twitter with the Wonka GIFs and memes flying faster than I can even keep up makes this a moot argument.)
But we’re not here to talk about Willy Wonka. We’re here to talk about an unlikely comedy duo that cemented Wilder, who died on Monday from complications associated with Alzheimer’s, with a comedy legend – a duo that was formed in 1976 when Wilder first starred alongside Richard Pryor in Silver Streak.
It was supposed to happen in Blazing Saddles, but the studio was against casting Pryor (a movie he co-wrote) because of his unpredictable behavior. The same thing almost happened with Silver Streak, but in the end, by most accounts, the shoot went smoothly.
In the last few months, I had just happened to rewatch both Silver Streak and Stir Crazy. (Silver Streak was on cable and I bought Stir Crazy’s Blu-ray out of a discount bin.) It’s weird rewatching Silver Streak today because it’s primarily known for being a “Wilder-Pryor” movie, yet it takes forever for Pryor to show up. It’s honestly at least halfway through before we see these two together. Wilder plays George Caldwell, a book editor taking an express train from Los Angeles to Chicago. After an evening of drinking, George is fairly sure he witnesses a murder, yet no one really believes him. George is thrown off the train (a couple different times) and is eventually framed for the murder he witnessed. After all this, George finally meets Grover (Pryor), a thief in the backseat of a police car George steals.
There are a couple of interesting things going on here: Silver Streak begins as a fairly serviceable film held together by the whimsical charm of Gene Wilder (with help from Jill Clayburgh and Ned Beatty). But then Pryor shows up and everything changes. And it’s not just that Pryor is there; Wilder is all of a sudden operating on a different level. I mean, these two have a real thing going on. And what an unlikely pairing: Wilder’s reserved temperament, always ready to bubble over, paired with Pryor’s bombastic bravado. The two brought out the best in each other. Silver Streak would gross $51 million.
In a 2013 interview, Wilder was asked about Silver Streak and said, “The first one was really good. We got along really swell.” When 1980’s Stir Crazy was mentioned next, Wilder seemed much more dour, recounting stories of how Pryor would be late to the set. “Sidney was going nuts,” said Wilder, speaking of Stir Crazy’s director, Sidney Poitier. Wilder added about Pryor, “It wasn’t easy when he was on something.”
Stir Crazy finds old friends Skip (Wilder) and Harry (Pryor) leaving New York City for the greener pastures of Hollywood. They never get there, as they are mistaken for two men who just robbed an Arizona bank. (It’s a long story; it involves woodpecker costumes.) After being sentenced to 125 years in prison, Skip discovers he’s a natural at bull riding (another long story) and they use an upcoming rodeo as a backdrop for their grand escape.
Unlike Silver Streak, Wilder and Pryor are both in the entire film, but it’s still frustrating because about halfway through, their stories sort of split apart for about 45 minutes, so we don’t get to see them on screen that much again until the very end. But, again, even with Pryor’s problems, when these two are together on screen, they light it up. Stir Crazy would go on to be the third biggest film of 1980, only behind The Empire Strikes Back and 9 to 5 — besting films like Airplane!, Smokey and the Bandit II, and The Blues Brothers.
It’s just a shame there’s not more from this era. From what Wilder said in that 2013 interview, it seems unlikely he would be crazy about the idea of signing onto another film with Pryor after all the problems on Stir Crazy. The two wouldn’t reunite until 1989’s See No Evil, Hear No Evil, but it wasn’t the same. There were glimpses of what came before, but there were also a lot of jokes about being deaf and being blind.
In 1991, the two would reunite one last time in a movie called Another You, which few people seem even to remember existing, let alone seeing. This would be Gene Wilder’s last theatrical film. It would be Richard Pryor’s final starring role; he’d appear for the final time in David Lynch’s Lost Highway.
Wilder would go on to say of Pryor, “When he was good, he was wonderful. When he was bad, he was awful.” In an alternate universe, maybe we get seven or eight of these movies with Wilder and Pryor in their prime. As is, we get two: Silver Streak and Stir Crazy. And the truth is, it’s so unlikely that these two teamed up in the first place, it really is a gift that we even have these.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.